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Terps' relief is tempered by implication of infraction

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - One year of probation isn't as good as a clean slate. Five years with the NCAA hammer ready to drop is serious. It could be a whole lot worse.

For that, Terrapin Nation should give thanks. The NCAA could have told the Terps yesterday there's a restriction on football recruiting, on scholarships. They could have said no bowl games, no BCS dreamin'.

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Instead, coach Ralph Friedgen looked stricken but relieved yesterday. Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow reiterated her vow and mantra: Anyone caught violating NCAA rules "will be dismissed."

It was a close call for Maryland, but, in the end, it was a day for relief - and some praise. The NCAA found Maryland's actions in the infractions case "particularly commendable."

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Still, what Maryland has gone through is nothing less than a cautionary tale for a fast-rising football power. The price for playing big games is hefty.

There are a lot of shady deals and relationships in Division I athletics, which is less about student-athletes and far more about serving as our nation's minor leagues of pro sports. It's inherently infused with duplicity, not to mention the urge to cheat.

Just ask the people at Michigan, Fresno State, Georgia, Washington or, the saddest, most recent example of D-I sports gone awry, Baylor. There, the basketball program's tally is one player dead, another charged with murder, a coach and athletic director (finally) forced to resign, but only after allegations of drug use and improper tuition payments were revealed.

And to think it took NCAA president Myles Brand so long to admit the case at Baylor wasn't merely a criminal case. Yes, the institution was out of control and a worst-case example of how a morally bankrupt climate is allowed to envelop "our student-athletes."

Indeed, Baylor is extreme. But where did the trouble start? What line was crossed first? Money in a sneaker? Money for a video game? About Baylor, we can safely say this: It had to start somewhere, with a wink or a willful denial of the rules.

In a time when Division I athletics are the source of multi-billion-dollar TV contracts, where conferences (such as the Atlantic Coast) raid other conferences (such as the Big East) in the name of progress and as a way to amass power against the almighty NCAA, things can get out of control fast.

Yesterday, Yow proved she grasps how fast it can all spiral out of control. It's a good thing, considering when Miami and Virginia Tech roll up to the NCAA trough for the 2004 college season, the stakes get even higher.

"We never deliver messages with a wink or a nod about NCAA compliance," Yow said.

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She did ponder how far Maryland has to go to enforce the rules: "Post signs that say: 'Do Not Give Cash to Recruits'?"

Maryland doesn't think it was lucky its brush with the NCAA for the actions of a rogue coach did not yield a worse fate. By self-reporting, the Terps spared themselves far more serious consequences.

"Maryland should receive full credit for the responsible action it took," said NCAA infractions committee chair Thomas Yeager.

Still, there was a lot of anxiety in College Park waiting for the NCAA's verdict. A shadow had been cast.

"I'm embarrassed. ... It hurts me that my school is put in that category," Friedgen said.

It's a telling phrase from a coach who rightfully says he doesn't need to cut corners in order to win. As one of the best strategists in football (see last week's Sports Illustrated), Friedgen can do it the right way. Maryland's pipeline to local talent doesn't need to be greased or tainted.

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"I have nine years left on my contract. I told my staff I'm very secure. They don't have to do these things," said Friedgen, adding he still doesn't know why former assistant coach Rod Sharpless gave recruit Victor Abiamiri money.

"It was just an individual thing. It was a good person making a mistake. He cared about [Abiamiri]."

But this is the price you pay when an assistant stuffs money in a shoe. This is big business, college football. It's big business done at institutions of higher learning. That's the start of all the problems, especially when coaches want to play Santa, buy kids Christmas toys because they're going to help you win.

The warning light is on.


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